Comic Books Magazine

Advice On Manga Lettering, From Manga Letterers (2015 Edition)

Posted on the 15 July 2015 by Kaminomi @OrganizationASG

Oh ho, don’t think I forgot all about this project! Now we’re onto 3 out of 4 of advice from manga series from professionals working in the manga industry. One more month to go, but until then, let’s focus on the letterers!

Sure, the words are important, but if you’re not having a good time reading it, that’s not good. Great letterers, however, make the reading experience natural, as they place the text bubbles, sound effects, and more, on a printed or digital manga. Hope you’ll enjoy the 4 who took part in this year’s manga lettering edition: Vanessa Satone, Phil Christie, Corinna Cornett, and Jennifer Ward.

Advice On Manga Lettering, From Manga Letterers (2015 Edition)
Advice On Manga Lettering, From Manga Letterers (2015 Edition)
Advice On Manga Lettering, From Manga Letterers (2015 Edition)

Vanessa Satone, Viz Media (Kimi ni Todoke, Knights of The Zodiac, Naruto, One Piece, Tokyo Ghoul)

How did you get the opportunity to start working as a manga letterer?

I started out as an intern for Central Park Media’s comics department. I would do corrections and occasionally letter pages from scratch. They decided to move lettering in house eventually, so I wound up doing a few books. I also had a friend who was drawing a book for TOKYOPOP who asked me to letter her book, which opened the door for freelance work.

What was the biggest misconception you had about the manga industry before you started working in it?

I don’t remember really having any misconceptions when I started. Several of my friends were already working in the industry when I got hired, so I had a pretty good idea of what I was getting into.

What’s generally the biggest challenge you face when lettering a manga?

Retouching out the Japanese sound effects is usually the biggest challenge. I’ll sometimes have a see-through sound effect where I basically have to redraw the entire area the FX covers. I’ve had a few instances where I’ve spent a whole day or more on a single page.

Name me three skills or the most important skill an aspiring letterer should have to break into the industry.

Proficient knowledge of Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign are really important. It’s also helpful to know some Japanese. I know very little, but on occasion I’ll have an instance where I’m not sure which text is supposed to go where, and I can usually work it out.

What has been your toughest moment in the industry and why?

I once wound up taking on more work than usual around the same time that I was moving to a new apartment, so I spent a lot of sleepless nights trying to pack and work at the same time. And one of the books was a new project that turned out to be much harder than I originally thought, so I wound up needing to get an extension on that deadline. Also that book was a fill-in for a different letterer, but then I wound up needing to get a fill-in letterer on one of my regular titles. The whole thing was a mess.

What would be the best way for an aspiring letterer to break into the manga industry?

I don’t really know what the “best” way to break in would be. Most of the letterers I know got work from either working in-house first and making contacts that way, or by having friends already working in the industry. Obviously you shouldn’t make friends with the intention of trying to get work out of them later, but knowing people does help.

What manga have you most enjoyed working on and why?

I don’t know if I have an outright favorite, as most series have their pluses and minuses. 07-Ghost was pretty nice because a significant number of pages were sent without the Japanese sound effects, so it saved me a lot of time on retouching. I enjoy One Piece and Tokyo Ghoul for the stories, but they’re both pretty complicated in terms of retouching.

Finally, how has working on manga changed how you view manga in general?

I’ve definitely gotten pretty picky about the books I read as far as lettering goes. If I don’t like the way a book is lettered, I won’t continue with the series. Also, if I’m looking at untranslated manga, I tend to think about what fonts I would use if I was lettering it, even if it’s something I’m not ever going to work on.

Advice On Manga Lettering, From Manga Letterers (2015 Edition)
Advice On Manga Lettering, From Manga Letterers (2015 Edition)

Phil Christie, Manga Box, freelance (High School Ninja Girl, Kazuki Makes Love Happen?!, Wheel of Life)

How did you get the opportunity to start working as a manga letterer?

I came over to Japan on a working holiday visa and wanted some additional income, so I replied to an ad on Craigslist. I had never lettered anything in my life, but I know Photoshop pretty well, passed their test and got the job. I used that work as a portfolio and was able to get other jobs (and a visa) as a result.

What was the biggest misconception you had about the manga industry before you started working in it?

That the manga industry is more professional that it actually is. When I started I figured I would be doing what Viz does for their physical releases, erasing all the sound effects and producing something that was of a relatively high standard. Getting my first job on Craigslist should have been an indication of what was to come, but I find that most companies actually don’t care that much about the end product, especially if it is a digital release. This is probably because that kind of manga is cheaper to produce and maybe consumed faster, but I have seen some horrible lettering and it baffles me how they got away with it. Comics lettered using Arial, total disregard for whether the letter “i” should have crossbars or not (sometimes this is down to font choice) and overlooking poor layout of text. I was even asked by a particular company, whether or not I could lower my quality to 80% in order to increase output. Not the kind of thing anybody wants to really hear. Obviously this is not true for every company/project, some are extremely professional and work to be printed has far more attention to details paid to it. But generally speaking, quality control is poor these days.

What’s generally the biggest challenge you face when lettering a manga?

Cleaning the scans. It’s challenging because Japanese companies have access to the blank scans, but often choose not to give them to you unless they’re requested. It’s a huge waste of a letterer’s time and usually unnecessary. If the manga is old then this issue can’t be avoided, but cleaning still takes the largest amount of time and can be difficult, especially when you come across irregular screen tone patterns or parts that will require being redrawn.

Name me three skills or the most important skill an aspiring letterer should have to break into the industry.

  1. Understanding how to use Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign, skilfully.
  2. Attention to detail.
  3. Patience.

What has been your toughest moment in the industry and why?

I don’t think I have had any, up until now it’s been pretty smooth. Although, the toughest moment for my ego was the first time I had a project taken away from me without reason. It’s tough because sometimes they put you back on the project, and subsequently you may be asked to lower your quality in order to emulate someone else’s work. I’m not sure if this is division of labor done badly, whether the publishing company/artists didn’t like my work and asked to have someone else, or if it’s some another reason. The first time I went through this though, it was tough. I felt rejected and then annoyed that they would ask me to copy someone else’s style. It’s all business at the end of the day though, so I got used to it fast.

What would be the best way for an aspiring editor to break into the manga industry?

My job came as a result of either the law of attraction or total fluke, so I am not really the best person to give advice. I would just say, look for job posting or email companies to see whether or not they have any openings. Most companies will give you a 10 page test, but it can’t hurt to get some raw scans and do your own scanlation for use as a portfolio. Letterers come and go, so there’s always someone hiring.

What manga have you most enjoyed working on and why?

It’s hard to remember all the names of the manga I’ve worked on, but recently Steel Briar Rose was kind of fun. I think it was an independent manga but I really enjoyed it. Being able to help produce something of decent quality for the artist with a smaller budget always makes me feel good. Umizaru was kind of cool too, simply because it was the first really successful manga that I got asked letter.

Finally, how has working on manga changed how you view manga in general?

I respect the artists a whole lot more. I’m fortunate enough to say that the hardest thing I have to do is clean scans from time to time, so I can’t even imagine the amount of effort it takes to create 200 pages or artwork. Whether the artist has a team or not, the amount of work that goes into these books is insane.

Advice On Manga Lettering, From Manga Letterers (2015 Edition)
Advice On Manga Lettering, From Manga Letterers (2015 Edition)
Advice On Manga Lettering, From Manga Letterers (2015 Edition)

Corinna Cornett, Digital Manga Guild Letterer (Moon & Blood, Rainbow Waltz, Aria The Scarlet Ammo, Pandra Restaurant!)

How did you get the opportunity to start working as a manga letterer?

I came across a Digital Manga Guild sidebar ad when I was googling something (can’t remember what it was). I thought, “Hmm, I’ve been scanning and cleaning my own doujinshi collection for a few years for fun. I wonder if I could actually work as a letterer.” So I applied, took their editor and letterer tests, passed both, and started working on my first title 1 month later.

What was the biggest misconception you had about the manga industry before you started working in it?

That freelancing is lucrative. Boy, was I wrong. I knew going in that’d I have to work on a good number of titles before I’d break even. I just didn’t realize how long it could take between completing a title and seeing the check.

What’s generally the biggest challenge you face when lettering a manga?

Scheduling is definitely challenging. Not including freelancing, I have a full-time and a part-time job. Making time and/or sometimes working on manga through the night is what I have to do to meet a deadline.

Name me three skills or the most important skill an aspiring letterer should have to break into the industry.

Hmm… Good touch up art skills, editing skills, and self motivation.

What has been your toughest moment in the industry and why?

Toughest? Hmm… I guess it’d have to be a few months back when I was given three consecutive Harlequin titles. Two of the titles were due in 36 hrs. Since it was the weekend I had the time, but it would’ve been difficult to have met the first 2 deadlines if I received them during the week.

What would be the best way for an aspiring editor to break into the manga industry?

Practice, practice, practice! Seriously though. Follow industry social media accounts, correspond with other professional/aspiring editors, and be attentive for job openings. Most of the publishers post job openings to their social media accounts first and then to job sites. I’d also suggest to keep practicing grammar and language skills.

What manga have you most enjoyed working on and why?

That’s a tough one. I have more than one. 1) Moon & Blood (MB) series (German) by Nao Yazawa. Mostly because I got the honor to work on one of my favorite mangaka’s series. Plus I got to localize it in my first language (1st language by 1 word since my second spoken word was “dad”). Working on MB was a challenge too since I didn’t have access to the original Japanese files and had to work with the English localized version. I highly enjoyed the challenge. 2) Brave Dan by Osamu Tezuka. I fell in love with the character Dan. I love tigers! I’m also excited to get Brave Dan in print from Digital Manga Inc.’s latest Tezuka kickstarter. It’ll be the first title I’ve worked on gets printed. 3) Aria the Scarlet Ammo (Manga) Vol.1-3 by Chuugaku Akamatsu & Kobuichi. I’m not a big fan of moe titles, but Aria kinda grew on me. The start of vol.1 was a struggle to work through due to lack of interest in the story, but by ch4 I was anticipating what was going to happen next. Also Aria was the first title I received unflattened, which made cleaning the pages really nice.

Finally, how has working on manga changed how you view manga in general?

Surprisingly, my view on manga hasn’t changed. I’ve always internally critiqued anything I read to the point that I’ve taken a pencil and corrected grammar/punctuation in novels I own. I won’t do that to my manga, but it does irk me when I find a lot of errors. Now that I think of it, my appreciation for all the work put into one volume of manga is different.

Advice On Manga Lettering, From Manga Letterers (2015 Edition)
Advice On Manga Lettering, From Manga Letterers (2015 Edition)

Jennifer Ward (Note: She also took part in the translations edition, hence why some answers seem familiar!)

How did you get the opportunity to start working as a manga letterer?

I responded to a Craigslist ad, actually. They were just starting the MangaBox app and they needed a bunch of translator/letterers for it ASAP. I think getting a gig in this way is fairly atypical, though!

What was the biggest misconception you had about the manga industry before you started working in it?

I’m not sure I had any misconceptions about it… I read up about it a lot before I got into it. I read a bunch on the translation industry in general, as I’ve known for years I wanted to be a translator, and I knew all about the TOKYOPOP crash and how the manga industry in general was struggling… I knew it would not be daisies and roses. I guess the thing that surprised me most about the job itself, though, is the fact that translators have quite a lot of freedom in terms of ignoring input from the editors. You can contest everything they say. I wouldn’t necessarily say that’s a good idea, and I usually accept all their edits, but a stubborn translator could conceivably ignore quite a lot.

What’s generally the biggest challenge you face when lettering a manga?

The biggest challenge I face lettering… would be trying to figure out how much you’re supposed to do. All of my clients ask for a “write English sfx beside the Japanese” style of lettering. The thing is… what counts as sfx? What about dialog written outside a bubble? What about text on a cell phone screen? What about signage in the background? What about a character holding a note with something written on it? In the end, it’s often up to your own discretion. Some background things you ignore, some text you replace, some things you write beside it. Sometimes there’s like a big honking piece of Japanese text over the whole page and for some reason it’s integrated into the art and it’s even in the blank file (the one with no Japanese/empty bubbles). What do you do then? It’s not worth it to spend hours clone brushing one page, but just writing it beside often looks really tacky.

I often worry I’m doing more work than is really necessary/creating work for myself by lettering too much, since most readers and most clients will not notice that tiny background text I worked so hard on, and many letterers just flake out and take the easy route if they think it’s more work than what they’re getting paid for. So you have to balance your desire to be thorough and being realistic about your time expenditures. You’re not getting paid to do a full replacement job unless you’re working for Viz.

Name me three skills or the most important skill an aspiring letterer should have to break into the industry.

Be on time, be available, and be flexible. That is to say, hand in your projects on time (earlier is better!), have a smartphone on you so you can respond to emails at any time and be ready to work at any time. Be prepared to work 10 hour days and weekends when there is a tough deadline because a month from now your work may dry up. In the translation industry they describe this as “boom and bust.”

Many times you will have a very small window to respond to an opportunity for work. You must reply to those emails within the hour or you have a good chance of getting bumped off. But if you reply fast and can squeeze last-minute jobs into your schedule you will become invaluable to your clients and they will start to prioritize you.

What has been your toughest moment in the industry and why?

I had a tight deadline on a multi-volume project and then the client changed their minds and decided they wanted to bump up the deadline and have us hand it in even earlier. At the same time I felt pressured to accept other projects and did not say no when I should have. I was really stressed out for a few months. Sometimes you have no learn when to say no.

What would be the best way for an aspiring letterer to break into the manga industry?

Your best bet is to just email any publishers or agencies you want to work for with your resume. They’ll reply with a translation and/or lettering test and if you do well on it you will have the opportunity to work for them. They might ignore your resume if you don’t have experience, though.

I also did *ahem* scanlate doujinshi when I was in university. I did all the scanning, cleaning, lettering and translation all by myself. It was good practice, and it taught me a lot about Photoshop. I’m entirely self-taught as a letterer, and I think scanlation is a great way to learn lettering especially.

What manga have you most enjoyed working on and why?

I really liked doing “In a Heartbeat” on MangaBox. I picked it up a few chapters in after another translator left the project. I do like BL, and that’s the only one I’ve had the chance to do thus far. Also… that manga had lots of pages with big art and very little dialogue, haha. It was easy to letter and fast to translate. I love doing titles with lots of big, wordless full-page spreads and few SFX!

Finally, how has working on manga changed how you view manga in general?

I have a less rosy-eyed view of manga in general. As a fan, you read only the manga you like, so you have the impression that all manga is awesome. If you’re in the industry, you do whatever work you can get, and you realize that not all manga are Tezuka-level of quality. You’ll do genres you don’t like and titles you think are boring. It kind of drains the magical feeling away from manga. I also hardly read manga for fun anymore, since I’m looking at it all day at work. I ESPECIALLY can’t read manga in English anymore because I just zoom in on every detail. “That line is awkward” or “that font is too large” or “I can see your bad clone brushing.” It even happens when I’m watching subbed anime with my boyfriend. I get so critical, I can’t help it!


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